Thursday, June 28, 2018

My Memories of Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison has passed away.

He will be remembered as a masterful, influential author for years to come. His literary achievements are a matter of record, and as an outspoken advocate for working writers getting their just due, he was admired, loved, loathed, and despised, depending on which side of his legendary ire you might be standing. Just about everyone who has been around for any length of time in this business of writing for money has his or her own Harlan Ellison anecdotes, and they will be flying around like turkey buzzards for the foreseeable future. Still, I'm going to add mine to the mix because my interactions with him were memorable and personally meaningful.

In the mid 1990s, when Deathrealm magazine was going great guns under the Malicious Press label, the late, also legendary Karl Edward Wagner, who wrote a regular column for the magazine, had picked up the rights to what, by all indications, was the last and only unpublished story by celebrated North Carolina fantasy author Manly Wade Wellman. Karl felt the story, "The Finger of Halugra," was a natural fit for Deathrealm and said that if I was interested in running it, the story was mine.

Well, what do you think? This was something of a coup for a niche magazine devoted to the weirdest of weird tales, so "The Finger of Halugra" ran in issue #23 (Spring 1995), the cover of which boasted the blurb, "The last known unpublished short story by Manly Wade Wellman."

It wasn't long afterward, as I was in the shower getting ready for work around 6:30 a.m. one morning, I heard the phone ring. My (now ex-)wife, Mrs. Death, popped into the bathroom and said, "Mark, Harlan Ellison is on the phone for you."

"He is not."

"Yes, he is."

Yes, he was. He had apparently seen an advertisement about the Manly Wade Wellman story in Deathrealm, and it had more than piqued his interest because he too had in his possession an unpublished story by Manly Wade Wellman — which he intended to run in the (also legendary for its non-existence) anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. He was concerned that he and I might be in possession of the same Wellman story, and California being three hours behind us on the east coast, he had stayed up all night that he might get in touch with me by phone before I left home for my daily routine. It was a cordial exchange, and, happily, we determined quickly that we both had different Wellman stories. Well, how intriguing is that?

All that seemed settled, but a couple of weeks later, Harlan called me again, having picked up a copy of Deathrealm #23, this time beyond peeved that the cover bore that blurb about the "last unpublished story by Manly Wade Wellman." Apparently, when Harlan called me the first time, he was under the impression the issue had yet to be published. He went off for a pretty good while, and all I could do was hold the phone away from my ear until he took a breath.

Finally, I said, "Harlan, that issue has been out for a month — since before you called the first time. I thought you knew that."



"Oh. Never mind."

And I figured that would be the extent of my interaction with Harlan. But no. It was probably at World Fantasy Con that year or the next that Mrs. Death and I ran into him, and I introduced myself as the editor of Deathrealm, and we got to having what turned out to be a fairly prolonged conversation about fiction in general. During this time, Peg was standing next to me, taking in the goings-on, and Harlan stopped, looked at her, and said, "And just who are you?"

"I'm Peg, Mark's wife."

"Oh." He smiled. "Then you can stay."

Over the next couple of years, I heard from Harlan on occasion, stunningly to me, usually about relatively trivial stuff. Then, somewhere along the line, I had mentioned on GEnie, the old online forum, something he had said to me personally, and he really, really didn't like that I had repeated it, although it never struck me as something said in confidence (and honest to Yog, I don't even remember what it was).

I had planned to run an interview with Harlan in an issue of Deathrealm, and I had received a draft from the interviewer, but Harlan wasn't happy with it. He promised to redo the interview to our mutual satisfaction, but sadly, before he could furnish it, Deathrealm reached the end of its run. I gave him a call to tell him not to bother finishing the interview, at least for me, as its venue was on the verge of pushing up daisies. He offered his condolences and expressed what his admiration for the magazine, which he had clearly given more than passing attention. In all my days as a writer-editor-publisher, I think that may have been one of the most meaningful and gratifying conversations I ever had.

A time or two, our paths crossed again at some convention or another, but to me, it was those calls out of the blue from him that have always been most memorable, mainly because I had to struggle so hard not to go all fanboy and such. Sure, I was one of a gazillion people in the business with whom he shared a wee bit of his time, but those wee bits meant the world to me then — even when he took to yelling at me — and they still do.

With Harlan Ellison, you got what you got. He didn't beat around the bush, he didn't mince words. He was basically honey badger. Now, he was getting up there and had some health problems, so his passing was not exactly unexpected. But because our respective worlds did collide those times in years past, the death of this particular legend hits me with unexpected force.

One thing is certain: whether you loved him or hated him, Harlan Ellison will be remembered long after most of us alive today have composed our final lines.

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